Mimesis Law
27 January 2022

Cross: Matt Brown, Staying Sane on Crazy Joe Arpaio’s Turf

Oct. 21, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield “crosses” Matt Brown of Brown & Little, who came of age as a lawyer online with his own blog, Tempe Criminal Defense.

Q. When you started your blog in 2008, you were one of the newly minted criminal defense lawyers who took to the internet. Was it a marketing move or was there a different purpose?

A. I can’t say that the idea of using it as a marketing tool wasn’t somewhere in the back of my mind when I first started blogging, as nearly every lawyer I met who was even close to my age seemed to find almost all of their private work online, but I was mostly interested in blogging as a creative outlet.

When I put up my first substantive post, I was a week or two shy of having been licensed for a year. I had found I had far fewer opportunities to write substantive things like motions than I had expected I would before I started practicing, and trial was an even less common occurrence. I didn’t have a lot in my day to day work to feed my creative side. Plus, I felt like I was discovering this gigantic new world of injustice. I thought my blog would be a platform for me to expose what I encountered to the world.

Q. Not long after you started, you criticized a local lawyer who was accused of bringing drugs into a jail. And the local backlash, particularly of the sort of who is this kid to question one of his own, was brutal. What was your takeaway from that mess?

A. At first, I was mostly just surprised that people around here read the blog and cared. Most people only went to my site to attack me after someone had posted a link on a forum, but I eventually discovered that some local lawyers had been reading for a while. Knowing that has had a big effect on the way I discussed local news stories. Things that wouldn’t bother anyone coming from a non-lawyer or someone far away are a lot bigger deal when they come from a local colleague. I’ve toned down many a post since then keeping that in mind, and I’ve reached out a few times to people before posting too.

The big shock was the reaction of those local lawyers in general, though, which made me really discouraged about the effectiveness of a lot of my colleagues. After all, they were mad at me because I said something they didn’t like about someone they believed was innocent, and all they did was insult me and rail against the concept of a lawyer blogging in the first place. I couldn’t help but think that, if that’s what the defense bar here is made of, I’m not surprised the government gets away with what it does.

Q. You responded to your “elders” at the local criminal defense bar by pointing out they missed the point. Did it help? Did they accept your position? Did they make you pay for your “insolence” after that?

A. I certainly never got an apology from anyone, but I wasn’t expecting that. They argued until they apparently got tired of it, and then I think they forgot about it entirely. I’m sure most of them still think they were right and that I’m a disrespectful little punk, but I can’t say that I ever suffered any real consequence for any of it.

That may be because the subject of the post later got in all sorts of trouble with the bar for a variety of issues, and then continued to practice law while suspended, compounding things. Although one criminal case against him got dismissed, he ended up being convicted of a felony in another. To some extent, it was really depressing to see how hard his friends fought for him when they thought he was framed (and probably was), but how most of them disappeared when it turned out he’d made some really big mistakes elsewhere. It made it easy on me, but it wasn’t exactly the sort of thing I’d expect from a bunch of defense attorneys.

The lack of any real blowback may also have been because of the people who were commenting. Knowing their reputations better now, some of them seem to blow up about everything, one to the point of having found himself in bar trouble for, among other things, physically intimidating opposing counsel who upset him. Some of them weren’t exactly people whose ire was going to affect a lot of people’s perceptions of me. On the other end of the spectrum was one commenter I met for lunch. He’s been a friend for a while now, and amusingly, he’s recently started trying his hand at blogging.

Q. You’ve “grown up” as a lawyer online, as reflected in your blog posts.  And for a few years, they grew increasingly cynical and pessimistic. Was this too much, too soon, as far as disappointment in the system?

A. Absolutely. Like many people, I went into criminal defense expecting I’d change the world. I had idealized notions of everything. I wasn’t prepared for just how unfair things were, and when I encountered one injustice after another and often failed to make a difference despite pouring everything I had into my cases, it was impossible to avoid becoming at least a little bit cynical.

Plus, I found there were real risks involved with being an optimist in this job. I spend a lot of time giving people bad news. Clients want to know what’s likely to happen, and that has to involve an explanation of the worst-case scenario. Being able to contemplate that and communicate it to the client is essential for them to make informed decisions, and it is alarming how often my most pessimistic predictions turn out to be the right ones. It’s a slippery slope, though, as too much pessimism leads to a sense of futility that in turn leads plenty of lawyers to let the quality of their work slip. It’s a bit of a balancing act.

Q. What impact, if any, did the constant barrage of bad criminal law news on the internet have on you?  Did this affect your perspective on what was happening in your own daily practice?

A. Reading the news about anything related to criminal law is typically painful, as it generally consists of poor reporting on infuriating stories. I wouldn’t say that the news affected my perspective in my daily practice as much as my daily practice has completely eroded any faith I once had in the ability of most reporters to get anything right.

Q. You’ve developed a strong empathy for your clients, more than just zealously representing them because that’s your duty. Did you come to criminal defense that way, or did that come with experience?

A. I picked criminal defense because I wanted to represent individuals facing the wrath of the government. It was the fighting the government aspect that actually drew me to it, but it took no time at all for me to be overwhelmed by what the individuals were experiencing. I was naturally inclined to take their side based on my dislike of the laws I was fighting and a healthy skepticism toward authority generally, but I found it hard not to really feel for my clients. The fact they so clearly relied on me no doubt played a part in that.

Also, the first time I saw someone in shackles wearing Sheriff Joe’s classic black and white prison uniform with a pink undershirt and pink slippers was a real eye-opener. It was that much more powerful because the guy was in custody for some sort of drug offense. Moments later, I first went to the inmate holding area. They were all wedged in there so tight they could hardly move. Every guy I met seemed totally reasonable, though. One inmate was in custody for a third personal possession of marijuana conviction. He was almost exactly my age, and the prosecutor had just given him an advisement on the record that he was facing a stiff mandatory prison term for a having a single joint in his pocket. It was obvious he was going to plead after hearing that, and the plea the prosecutor had apparently also put on the record that the offer was to a prison term. It horrified me. He also mentioned his daughter at one point, which made things worse.

I’ve had more experiences like that than I can recall. Each one drives home the fact that the career I’ve chosen is about my relationship with another person. My job is to affect their life for the better. Clients aren’t always easy, but behind every unfair thing the system does is a victim I’ve gotten to know personally.

Q. You’re no longer the “newly minted” criminal defense lawyer you were when you started writing. When you look back at some of your earlier observations, do you wonder what you were thinking back then? Do you see things differently now that you’re gained the wisdom of experience?

A. Depending on my mood, I either cringe when I read my old posts, or I’m pleasantly surprised to see that I wasn’t a complete moron back in the day. It’s mostly the latter, luckily, though I don’t think there’s a single thing that I’ve written that wouldn’t look fairly different if I wrote it today. My style has definitely changed. Many of my earlier posts were drier and even technical at times. I wouldn’t editorialize much at all. It was a product of me realizing that I didn’t have a lot of experience-based opinions people would want to hear.

I imagine that any wisdom of experience has mostly served to make my voice more confident and my analysis more thorough. I think my perspective in general has been pretty consistent. It doesn’t take long to see what’s wrong, but learning why and being able to articulate it is something that took a while to grow and where I still have a long way to go.

Q. You work in one of the toughest legal arenas around, where hatred of “illegals” is manifest and Crazy Joe Arpaio gets re-elected despite his antics. Have you ever felt that you were wasting your time, that it wasn’t worth the effort to give your clients 100%?

A. Feeling like I’m wasting my time is a daily occurrence. I’ve said before that I can’t even convince my clients that Sheriff Joe isn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread, and it’s true; they all love what he does when it affects someone else. He appeals to the worst in people, and those horrible qualities are the guiding force in public policy here. He even just started a new campaign entitled “Operation No Drug Bust Too Small.” Seriously. People are eating it up, and even his federal contempt proceedings seem to be turning him into a martyr in many circles. While there seem to be little signs of hope popping up elsewhere, we’re still going full steam ahead in the wrong direction.

It’s easy to feel hopeless, and if I only took into account the outcome, many times when I do put in 100%, it isn’t worth the effort except in a philosophical sense. That said, an ethical and moral imperative compels 100% every time, and I have a tough time imagining any good defense attorney would view it any other way. To do any less would be wrong regardless of the lack of any practical consequences.

Q. You’ve written a lot about facing an intransigent legal system, whether judges or court staff, who basically just don’t give a damn. What keeps you going?

A. It really comes down to a sense that I’m doing good work and that, as negative as I might be at times, it does make a difference. If I thought I really was just helping to provide the illusion of an adversarial system when the result is actually predetermined, I’d hang up the towel immediately. In that case, my professional goals would be far better served by options outside of the system, things like politics or protest and even civil disobedience.

I tend to be incapable of lingering on victories, but there are plenty. There’s also a lot of psychic value in simply guiding someone through a flawed process in a way that makes the best of a bad situation. It’s a tough job, but a rewarding one.

Q. You started out at the New England Conservatory of Music. Do you regret your decision to go to law school now?  If you had it to do all over again, would you stick with music.

I definitely don’t regret going into the law, though I have no doubt I’d have a lot less stress in my life if I’d stuck with orchestral horn playing. Nobody went to jail when I missed notes, thankfully.

I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. Plus, even if I could go back in time, I doubt there’d be anything I could say to myself that would’ve changed my mind. “Compliant” isn’t a word people often use to describe me.

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